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The smell is what draws one to the sprawling epicenter of people and things we call markets. The sounds, the noise, and sometimes a combination of the two, and yes, they too are separate things. The sites, or more accurately, the colors, and of course, the shades. Hues, contrasts, whatever happens to be coming through the fence, the blinds, and at the right moment, shadows. Bright here, mellow there, ambiguous here, starkly sharp there.

As gathering places go, what draws locals to markets also draws passersby. The people. And what spins around the people.

And how funny it is, that locals and passersby alike, how we all glance up the aisles, down the lines, pull up chairs, slurp, chat, negotiate, laugh. Mesmerize. And be mesmerized. Perhaps this is the sole place where you and I are not so different, not so distant. Proximity by physics, but also in mind, is so often taken for granted.

Flies the size of thumbnails, on or around potentially lukewarm poultry, the nagging reminders of pocket thieves, and even the gentleman pissed off at photography-with-no-purchase, it all becomes a welcome banner. In a town flooded with trekkers catching wind before heading off to grander ruins, the mercado perhaps is one place to truly live Cusco.

While travel is generally to experience something out of the norm, as far away from the everyday as possible, the irony is that the best travel often lures you towards the norm and everyday of someone else. Away from one and towards another, and yet, from the contrasts, the sense of familiarity is what strangely lasts in the passerby’s psyche.

The author and passerby Nikos Kazantzakis once said, “I surrender myself to everything. I love, I feel pain, I struggle. The world seems to me wider than the mind, my heart a dark and almighty mystery.”

The fray of the market calls fur such surrendering, almost forcefully widening one’s mind, and the smell, the sounds, the noise, the sites, the colors, and the shades, all sink into one’s heart to form an almighty mystery. For a brief moment, one travels to and from the label of passerby to just another being – loving, feeling, struggling. As a place for trading, the most significant trade turns out to be that of the mind and sentiment, where full immersion allows one to be something completely different and yet the same. The vaguely familiar.

Salad bowls are like vanishing unicorns. Mixing bowls do not exist. To argue or to search for one would be dumping everything from the mercado (goat testicles and all) into a blender and forcing the consequence down one’s throat. Instead, what really happens is more like a dream, or that stage between sleep and consciousness. Passersby become locals, but are still passing by, but are still there, fully there.

It makes no sense, but in the end, travel makes no sense. It does not have to. What remains is one’s self, no longer of the past, a completely new being, back from the dream, now fully awake.

Back from the mercado.

“Let me, though, when again I have all around me the chaos of cities, the tangled skein of commotion, the blare of the traffic, alone, let me, above the most dense confusion, remember this sky and the darkening rim of the valley where the flock appeared, echoing, on its way home.” – Rainer Maria Rilke

Cusco begins and ends with its streets.

Meticulous stonework of the Incas is meshed with Spanish details. Each street and alley winds up and down smooth cobblestones, that which withstood centuries of mules and rubber.

The seemingly natural co-existance of the old and the new is, at the same time, unnatural. Miniature cars race through streets barely wide enough for them, tumbling here and there over flattened stones adjacent to stone walls hand-built by the Incas of centuries past. Women in traditional garb hurry down the street bashfully, while travelers from everywhere wander up the street to maybe nowhere.

Space is tight. Sidewalks are often layered terraces, resembling those that embrace the ancient city of Machu Picchu. Barely wide enough for two pedestrians, one must dart to and from the sidewalk to the cobblestone street, avoiding people and cars, and stray dogs. In some spots, the cobblestones are as unpredictable as the trails that encircle the great Salkantay Mountain, treacherous grounds lurking for weak ankles.

Space is tight and that is beautiful. It forces encounters. The new and the old, the local and the foreign, the there and here – we all meet in the street.

Above the buzzing streets, the deep blue of the clear Andean sky is a blank canvass for the clouds to dance upon. The mood, and the shadows, changes quickly. Clouds form, come, and go, often without much notice. Droplets of rain drizzle sporadically, only to vanish with the clouds, as if they are afraid of the scorching sun.

The color pallet of Cusco is as diverse as the landscape of the Andes. Upon the base of gray cobblestones and reddish brown roof tiles, splashes of red, yellow, blue, green quietly market their existence. Nothing overpowers. This is not unlike the famed Incan tapestry. Colors are celebrated, but not to the detriment of the balance of the whole, always in harmony with the base colors.

The streets of Cusco are works of art. They seem planned yet unplanned, designed yet organic. Then again, history is a designer. Time adds layers and angles not easily perceived my narrow human perception, trapped in the past and in the present. Time is an overlooked creative force. A stone or two in a day or two, a new structure or two in a year or two, a new neighborhood or two in a decade or two. History’s tragedies – the bloodbath of the Spanish invasion of the Incas – never truly heal. And yet its progeny still stands, and ironically exhumes beauty.

Everything changes, and nothing changes.

Colors and stones will add to Cusco. Cars change, streetlights change, people change. But as long as the cobblestones blanket the winding streets and the clouds hover to and fro, Cusco remains.

Dinner was cordial as usual. The menu doesn’t seem to vary much at these things, thought Ivan, as he finished off his grilled beef ribs. Immediately above his plate, on the white tablecloth, he had arranged eight or so business cards, as if he had been dealt a hand in a game of Texas Holdem. Matching names to faces was always difficult. Lisa, John, Peter, Sarah, Jacob. Jacob? Ivan glanced back and forth from his hand of cards to the laughing, chewing faces at the table. A merry round of poker. Cards were laid out in front of each player – manager, senior manager, associate, partner. These cards were dealt out only after ceremonious hand shakes, but that was more than an hour ago, before the beef, the fish, and the soup.

In between reaching, chewing, swallowing, and smiling, Ivan was busy jotting things down on the legal pad in his lap. He had considered placing the legal pad on the table – to ease the discomfort of having to keep his legs closed to support the legal pad – but the thought of bright yellow on white restrained him from doing so. That would upset Dmitri, his boss. Eat, write, smile, eat, write, smile. Dmitri’s orders. The meal, that’s right, remembered Ivan, there was a meal. Everything tasted the same.

To be honest, he didn’t quite remember what was ordered by whom, or what tasted like what. He did remember Dmitri briefly closing his eyes in prayer before the meal. But the food was a blur. Surly not a problem with the chef or the kitchen, thought Ivan, as the restaurant and staff were impeccable. Rather, Ivan’s mind and right hand were racing to catch every phrase uttered at the table. Lisa from blah said blah blah regarding blah blah blah. Peter responded to Lisa’s blah with his blah blah regarding blah blah blah. Like a mad court room reporter with no computer and only a pen, Ivan scribbled incomprehensible blahs left to right, up and down. The bright yellow of the legal pad was quickly invaded by blue ink, like mutant worms crawling for their lives across a vast yellow desert. Not to worry, thought Ivan, deciphering this mess would come later in the hotel room, when he drafts his nightly report for Dmitri.

The check for the dinner was about to come. Did the waitress bring it over already? No, wait, that was Ivan’s job, to prearrange the tab on the Department’s corporate account. He had forgotten all about it. Buried in checklists, rental car agreements, itineraries, hotel receipts, Ivan had forgotten to call the restaurant in advance to arrange the payment. The Department did not give Ivan and his team a corporate card. Rather, the Department’s account information was to be given at each destination as pre-approved payment. Consent and authorization forms had to be faxed back and forth with the Department, and although Ivan thought the system was convoluted and dysfunctional, there was no way around it. Dmitri’s orders. Now, he had completely forgotten this backwards payment ritual. Dmitri’s wrath was already palpable as he reached in his wallet for his personal card.

Card swiped. Tab signed. Receipt received. Glare.

Late autumn nights in Los Angeles were wrapped in a cool breeze. Smog had relentlessly covered any hopes of stars in the sky, but the coolness and absence of humidity were certainly inviting. Ivan, Dmitri and the dinner party slowly stepped outside, exchanging farewells and ceremonious handshakes. Ivan was about to turn the ignition in the rented Jeep Liberty when Dmitri’s cellphone rang. It was Tzesar, one of Dmitri’s seniors at the Department. Tzesar was in town on unrelated visit, had heard Dmitri was here, and wanted to meet up for rounds at a nearby karaoke joint. Dmitri was visibly tired but could not refuse. After all, pleasing his seniors was the only surefire way to secure his next promotion at the Department. Bailing out was out of the question. The digital clock next to the dashboard read 10:17 pm when Ivan’s team arrived at the karaoke bar.

Tzesar and his minions were already half drunk. With rosy cheeks and less than stellar balance, less ceremonial handshakes were exchanged, as everyone plunked down on the sofas in a good-sized room. An ugly strobe light twirled slowly, flashing bits of colored light on the bottles and empty glasses on the table. Jack Daniels and Heinekens were ordered, along with bland fruit platters. Tzesar had been in Los Angeles for a few days on official business, and was scheduled to head back to his office in San Francisco the next day. Shots of whiskey were exchanged. Tzesar was obviously glad to see Dmitri, especially during a business trip. Don’t worry about a thing, he said, everything tonight is on the Department, so drink up. More shots were exchanged.

The ties came off, the jackets came off. Shirt sleeves were rolled up. Terrible singing ensued, but who cared. As Tzesar’s associates were dancing to the music, clapping, and keeping the beat with tambourines, Ivan preferred to sit back and enjoy the nonsensical combination of booze and shitty music. But to ruin this odd sense of peace, Dmitri nudged him, whispering in his ear, get up there and dance or something, you’re making me look bad. The last thing Ivan wanted to do was imitate these baboons and dance to Tzesar’s unforgivable singing. But a few more nudges to the ribcage sent Ivan to the front of the room, with tambourine in hand. Baboon.

The whiskey and the dancing were not enough. The room was full of testosterone, said Tzesar, we need women to really lift our spirits. One of Tzesar’s associates, with his tie around his head like a headband, ran out. Minutes later, he returned with two young women. Neither looked much more than twenty years old. Marina cuddled up next to the alpha male, Tzesar, her black skirt barely reaching her thighs. Pouring him another shot of JD, Marina asked him if he wanted to sing a duet. Tzesar was all smiles. Tatyana swept across the sofa towards Dmitri, with the other JD bottle in hand. The sage Tzesar was right, the testosterone level was reduced by two plaster-faced twenty-somethings, and their spirits were lifted, both literally and figuratively. In no time, Marina had Tsezar in the front of the room, slow dancing with her like a middle school dance. Tatyana was serenading the couple with her favorite ballade, while Dmitri rattled his tambourine in approval.

Hips swayed. Mouths whispered. Glasses clanked.

As if the clock had struck midnight in the Cinderella fairytale, Marina and Tatyana said their heartfelt farewells and left, exactly one hour after they were led to the room. An unhappy Tzesar was told that he would have to rent them out for another hour if he wanted to prolong their presence. Glancing at his wrist watch, Tzesar muttered something under his breath and reached for his jacket. The night, sadly, was over.

Dmitri rushed to the cashier, in an attempt to further appease his alpha male by grabbing the tab. But giddily drunk Tzesar waived his hand in disapproval and handed a card to the cashier. I told you not to worry, said Tzesar, the Department will take care of this, it’s all part of the trip. The alpha male always wins these battles, and the night belonged to him and the Department. No handshakes this time. Drunken hugs were exchanged as the party exited the smoke-filled building into the even cooler Southern California night. Next time, declared Tzesar, he would treat them well in San Francisco. Better women, he snickered.

Ivan the designated driver lowered his window as he steered the Jeep towards the hotel. The wind pounded his face, oncoming headlights rushed passed him in surprising consistency, and the darkened silhouettes of mile-high palm trees painted the skyline. In the hotel elevator, Dmitri uttered something about a report on the dinner meeting, how he shouldn’t have to pull out his personal card ever again, how Ivan should learn how to dance with the ladies. Ivan nodded silently, his mind still attached to palm tree silhouettes. The elevator door opened on the tenth floor.

Ivan sank deeper into the hotel bed. His head was spinning.

Just minutes ago, I was driving across Bay Bridge in what seemed like miles of concrete, the ferocious rain slapping against the barely visible windshield, all the temporary residents of the bridge enveloped in a thick fog. Even with the wipers toiling at maximum speed, visibility was near zero. Then, in spectacular fashion, the sky cleared and the clouds parted, collecting the rain and its remnants. As rays of sunshine pierced the withering layers of precipitation, the fog cleared as well, dissipating in a heartbeat, as if it were never there to begin with.

“I’ll have a shot of espresso, pulled long please.” Thanks to a faulty navigation system, a supposed two-hour drive up to St. Michaels had taken closer to four, and with a stiff back from the extended drive, I desperately grasped coffee’s medicinal healing powers. Espresso for the back. Worked before, so why not. Doctor’s orders. What came back was an overly bitter, acidic specimen of espresso, remarkably similar in taste to the ginseng extract my mom used to shove in my mouth as a child. Not something you would want to correlate with coffee, especially the first few sips in a new town. In open defiance to the predisposed list of “coffee cities” – the likes of Seattle, New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles – I was, in part, in search of a noteworthy coffee scene in this small tourist destination, a roaster and a cup or two of praiseable beans and coffee. Maryland has its share of excellent specialty roasters, Ceremony Coffee being one of them. But my first stop at Blue Crab Coffee quickly dwindled any hope of making a significant discovery (TripAdvisor and Yelp are not to be trusted blindly). Disappointment trickling down my esophagus along with the shot – I had expected much more from a relatively well-reviewed cafe, especially a more jovial atmosphere in lieu of sorry music – I stepped back outside and into the sun on my first afternoon in St. Michaels.

A trip to crab country when crab season is still months away. The only glimpse of Maryland blue crab was a glistening plastic replica hanging on a wall at Blue Crab Coffee. But St. Michaels was much more than just crab. It is a quiet coexistence of opposites, centered around shipbuilding and leisure. The town first flourished as a mecca of shipyards in the Chesapeake, fueled by people’s explosive appetite for oysters and later crab. A boom in ships, oysters and crab meant a boom for the town. Churches and schools were built, homes were settled, and fisherman, oystermen and businessmen alike flourished. Then the ships were no more. The oysters never died off, but harvest levels fell drastically. Crabbing became the main source of livelihood. Over time, the once thriving ship town evolved into a quaint retreat, with the likes of Donald Rumsfeld purchasing vacation homes on the Bay. Different types of vessels are built now, mostly luxury yachts. Tourism, especially during the summer crab season, sustains the town.

But ironically, the off-season is the ripe time to immerse oneself to the quintessential Eastern Seaboard. Away from the flocks of tourists, jam packed in the one-two-many crab shacks near the docks. Distanced from the temptation to settle for only the guided tours offered twice a day. In all honesty, escaping “touristy” St. Michaels is near impossible. You should pay admission and check out the maritime museum, a must to understand the backbone shipping industry that sustained this regions for decades. Guided tours or not, you should walk through the heart of the city on foot; the historic section is tiny, and you’d drive through it in minutes. In the midst of “touring,” however, be sure to chat up the locals to find out where they eat and where they drink their coffee. In doing so, you will find that crab country is possibly more charming when there are no crabs around.

From my short trip to the heart of the Chesapeake, here are three takeaways.

1. Fried Oysters and Pulled Pork, at Once

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Talbot Street is the main street piercing the belly downtown St. Michaels. The narrow street is clubbered with eateries left and right. One restaurant was particularly eye-catching, with an open patio resembling Cancun during spring break. A menu displayed the usual of what you’d expect on the coast – fried fish, burgers, sandwiches. Packed and bustling, very “family friendly.” Pass. Instead, I walked further down the road, a few blocks, towards the outer edge of downtown. Fewer people on the sidewalk. In the distance, I spotted a cloud of smoke slowly rising from a smoker on a trailer. The smell of smoky, caramelized meat was violently enticing. Gripping. The last thing I expected on this trip was to be standing next to a cozy smoker, inhaling the Divine Breath while contemplating whether to have grilled grouper or oysters. And pulled pork. The sign outside read ‘Big Al’s Market.” Smoked meat. Plus freshly fried Chesapeake oysters. Needless to say, I walked in.

On the hand-written menu, “barbeque” and “oysters” floated harmoniously, shyly as if the two acquaintances did not really know how to coexist within the limited square footage of the establishment. Surf and turf was no longer a plate of disdainfully well-done steak with dehydrated shrimp. Here, pork butt slowly roasted for hours in an actual smoker married just-shucked oysters the size of dried persimmons, breaded and perfectly deep fried. Smoke, pork, bun, oysters, cocktail sauce (with extra horseradish). All consumed at a “smoke-side” table outside, right next to that smoker. Did I mention the smoker? The oysters, still hot, had an audible crunch, and yet I could still taste the sea from the juices in side. The horseradish pleasantly shot up my nostrils, while the fuming smoke from the roasting pork bun and ribs cajoled the left side of my face. No complaints on being completely enveloped in that smoke.

A proper hello to a new city. Cars whizzing by behind my back, the warm midday sun easing the still brisk spring winds, a few local high school students taking the table next to ours with baskets of pulled pork sandwiches and fries. Even if I was sitting on the curb, without tables, I would not have had lunch any other way in St. Michaels. Expected and unexpected at the same time, on that main touristy road but not touristy at all. Southern charm from the ongoing smoker, Chesapeake charm from the oyster juice. A wonderful dichotomy reflective of the bygone glories of the shipyards, the mounds of shiny oyster shells, and the remaining gift shops selling disturbingly ugly t-shirts. Embracing this dichotomy presents a new prism in which to view St. Michaels as something more than a mere settlement of vacation homes. Embracing this dichotomy tastes like, well, smoke. That smoker!

2. White Tablecloth is Not the Devil

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I have a thing on fine dining. Not against, just “on.” The one-too-many shiny utensils, two-too-many glasses, the obviously American-born waiter (quite possibly a George Washington University student) painfully saying “voila” every other visit with an accent even I can detect, the pitifully frugal morsel of food on my overpriced plate with some sauce smeared across the top and mysterious foam slowly deflating on the side. Not against fine dining, not against it. I’d like to redefine it, somewhat. White tablecloth does not make food “fine,” nor does an over indulgence of fois gras or truffles on every dish. To be honest, I don’t know how I’d define fine dining. “Fine” is subjective on so many levels, although Michelin or the Beard Foundation would disagree. Defining subjective things is almost a pointless task, for the final definition of the term will be, by “definition”, different for any individual or group. Different definition across cultures, race, generations, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Given this, I say the hell with it, here is what fine dining boils down to: enjoyment of well-prepared food in the company of likeable people within the confines of agreeable surroundings. Food, people, place.

Hence the heightened speculation when I was seated at Sherwood’s Landing, the exquisite restaurant at the Inn and Perry Cabin hotel. In any city I visit for the first time, my priority is to explore the hidden huts and shacks no one has heard of and not reviewed in Yelp or TripAdvisor. That cafe only the locals frequent, that burger joint students visit for their hangover cure. But this trip had a grander purpose than my priorities, our first wedding anniversary. For one meal, no shack will do, no hut will do, only the best dining experience in all of St. Michaels would be worthy of our occasion.

The dining area was beautiful, overlooking a small bay with wooden docks, the late afternoon sunshine illuminating the entire room. The tables were mostly empty, as we had opted for an earlier time slot. Like much of the resort itself, the restaurant was serene and calming, the famous spa having rubbed off its influence even in the gastronomic arena. Enchanting, but my interest, as always, was whether the food would match the ambiance. And indeed, the chef rose to the challenge. No foam. No fluff. No frills. Local, in-season ingredients, generous portions. The warm salad, with blanched asparagus and morel mushrooms, was more than pleasing even to this salad-despising carnivore; the butter and crème fraîche sauce, punched with chopped garlic, was perfect. The real highlight, however, is the stuffed duck breast I had for my entree. If you’ve had duck breast done blasphemously incorrectly on more than one occasion (read overcooked), you will empathize with the praise I am about to pour out. Most importantly, the breast was the perfect temperature, pinkish and very moist. The chef butterflied the breast, pan fried it, and stuffed it with a tantalizing concoction of apples and smoked walnuts, among other things. Three medallions, rolled like a futomaki, rested on three beds of pureed parsnips, a much wiser supplement than potatoes or other starches. To best enjoy this dish, every criterion must hit the tongue at once. Juicy duck, tart apples, smoky walnuts, sweet and buttery parsnip. Oh, and the medallions were wrapped in bacon. Not overpowering, just adding salt and smokiness. Do I need to say more? The sauce was something wine-based, sweet, savory, brilliant. No other single dish has left a lasting impression as this one. That says a lot.

Fine dining has reinvented itself in my psyche. The fancy frills, the foie, even the foam – they’re okay. As long as the food is profound and prominent throughout the dining experience, as long as the food is straightforward, as long as the food tastes “fine,” white tablecloth is not the devil.

3. Locals Know Their Brew

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Exploring a new city through its cafes is a brilliant approach. Coffee, the people who serve it and the cafes in which it is served, is a vein that connects cities and their inhabitants. Where there is coffee, there are stories, stories about stories, and the people behind the stories. Cafes are microcosms of the city itself, a miniature that captures its essential characteristics. You know a cafe, and you’re half way there in knowing the city.

I did not have high expectations of St. Michaels’ coffee scene. Most reviews I glanced over indicated two cafes, one of which was closed in 2011. The other is Blue Crab Coffee, a supposed local favorite located in a big yellow house known as the Freedom’s Friend Lodge. As my first stop in town, I walked in and ordered an espresso. The rest is as stated in my opening; nothing special, nothing noteworthy. Bad espresso. Maybe it was that particular barista. Maybe the specialty pour over coffees would have fared better. I judge sushi joints the same way. One bite of nigiri; if it’s off, you haven’t got the basics down. Coffee? Espresso, if it’s off, it’s off. Whatever the reason, my first impression of St. Michaels, and any hopes of discovering a hidden coffee culture within, was all but ruined.

This is why you talk to waiters, bartenders, baristas, and hotel concierge. These folks know their cities in and out, and usually are giddily happy to share nuggets of information with you. At the end of a mind boggling meal at Sherwood’s Landing, as I was stuffing my face with an equally delicious souffle, I asked our waiter about their coffee. Restaurant coffee service, especially in starred establishments, is a recent interest to me, as I have written about it in this post. A blend of Sumatran and Guatemalan beans, the coffee was smooth, full body, and very nutty. With obvious pride, the waiter informed me that they have been working with the local roaster Rise Up Coffee for some time, and this was a specially designed house blend for the restaurant. Rise Up Coffee, I had to get me some of that, pronto. Evidently, the nearest nexus to this new found wonder was a drive thru kiosk a mile or so away.

The kiosk was the last pit stop before driving back to DC. I usually enjoy the cafe experience, walking in, perusing the single origin menu, checking out the espresso machine, the whole bit. But if a ten-by-ten hut in a parking lot serves fresh, tasty coffee, I do not care. Nothing frivolous, just a standard cup of the daily house blend, and yet my last impression of St. Michaels is now etched with Rise Up’s rich brew. The coffee scene did not let me down, after all. A local roaster in existence since 2005 serving great coffee on par with bigger competition in cities like New York and Seattle. It was a shame I did not visit the newly opened roastery in Easton; you can be sure I will drop by during my next visit. New roaster (at least to me) doing things right, brewing excellent coffee – these things excite me. Who knew. The “locavore” concept now makes more sense to me. Local oysters, local duck, and locally roasted coffee. Besides the obvious benefits of freshness and taste, the discovery of locally owned and distributed foods and coffees adds pure bliss to travel. And such discoveries will be the focal point of future tales to come.

The big hand on the clock had not yet passed the number twelve. It was not yet seven a.m., early for breakfast, according to some standards. I had barely taken off my parka when the kimchi jjigae started to boil, simmering atop the makeshift butane gas burner. “Aged” kimchi, fatty morsels of pork, fish cake, and in spectacular fashion, instant ramen noodles. This was the most memorable meal in my trek through Korea, and a worthy champion of all breakfasts of champions, a mesmerizing symphony of hot, spicy, sour, fatty and nutty.

Eating through Korea, and much of Asia, one inevitably encounters levels of heat and a variety of spices. They are what make the dishes unique, that “bang” effect when you pop that first spoonful in your mouth. Meat from all parts of the animal (and from all kinds of animals) smeared in deliciously mysterious blends of red chilies, fish from all depths of the ocean simmering in heat-infused cauldrons, and the freshest produce with nothing else but touches of sesame oil and mother loads of garlic. Personally, anything in soup form turns my head; alongside coffee, things boiling in savory broth are my favorite psychoactive drugs. What can I say, doctor’s orders. Soup fetish is shared amongst many travelers, writers and eaters alike. Fellow non-lawyer lawyer Jodi Ettenberg, travel writer and author of the blog Legal Nomads, knows a little something about eating through Southeast Asia, and has professed her love for all things soup in a beautiful piece about the gastronomy of Mekong (read it here).

One problem. I have gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD. According to the renowned Mayo Clinic, “Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a chronic digestive disease that occurs when stomach acid or, occasionally, bile flows back (refluxes) into your food pipe (esophagus). The backwash of acid irritates the lining of your esophagus and causes GERD signs and symptoms. Signs and symptoms of GERD include acid reflux and heartburn. Both are common digestive conditions that many people experience from time to time. When these signs and symptoms occur at least twice each week or interfere with your daily life, doctors call this GERD.” In food terms, anything flavorful and exciting will cause stomach acid to shoot up my esophagus. No good.

Thankfully, my case is not that severe, nothing that cannot be treated or controlled with “healthy” eating habits and Prilosec OTC (and my condition has improved significantly within the past year). Nevertheless, eating my way through Korea was not always easy with GERD, especially when I was treating every meal (starting with breakfast, and often more than three times a day) as if it was my last. But I wasn’t about to settle for salads and bland rice porridge. So over the years, I have developed a list of sorts, comprised of tips to control and minimize the level of discomfort. Every street I strolled down, something was boiling to my left, something steaming to my right, the soondae lady calling for me, the catfish stew guy grabbing my arm. As Oscar Wilde once said, “I can resist everything, except temptation.” Ah, the temptation. Ceaseless. Having GERD could be a death sentence to a traveler, a crippling Achilles heel. While shitting like a mink and crawling on all fours after eating bad crab is probably worse, GERD still impacts your eating routine. So awareness and precaution is critical. That is why I share this list with you, in hopes that, if there are any travelers out there suffering from this annoying-as-hell disorder, they will still manage to conquer the gastronomical path without a trip to the emergency room.

With that, here is some non-medical advice from a non-lawyer lawyer.

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1. Take Prilosec OTC (or equivalent) Religiously

I cannot emphasize this enough, for I once too underestimated its usefulness. Prilosec should be taken once a day, and it essentially blocks the release of excess stomach acid. Better than Tums. One doctor recommended I take it right before bed, because, theoretically, acid is more likely to travel upriver (meaning up the esophagus) when one is reclining. Makes sense. Another doctor told me I should take it about an hour before an anticipated “big meal,” so when this anticipation comes to fruition, my stomach is not freaking out, spewing acid like a frightened sea squirt. Personally, I think taking it at night before bed has worked better, but I cannot say that for others. Try both and see for yourself.

2. Stay Away from Aspirin

Down all the gochoojang you want, chomp on all the chilies you want, drink that late night coffee (ok, these are bad, too, for GERD). But whatever you do, don’t take aspirin, especially when your GERD symptoms seem to be on the rise (trust me, you know when things are about to get worse). I cannot explain why this is, and my med student brother told me some gibberish at some point, which I rarely comprehend. Bottom line, aspirin makes your symptoms worse. If you need pain medication or a fever reducer, try other drugs that do not contain aspirin.

3. Carbohydrates are Your Friend

You should eat your bland carbs (often meaning bland rice) to balance out the spice and heat of the other foods. In addition to all the grilled meats, fish, and stew, a bowl of rice or a slice of bread goes a long way, in my opinion, absorbing excess acid generated from the fiery pork belly and raw garlic that just went into your mouth.

4. Breakfast Does a Body Good

This isn’t your mom nagging you through grade school. Yes, breakfast is good for you, especially if you have GERD. In my experience, an empty stomach is ripe for acid action, especially if that empty stomach is blitzed with heavy, fatty, spicy, delicious creations without notice. Wherever your current destination is, the locals probably know where the best breakfast grubs are. You don’t really know a culture until you sit down with locals for breakfast. So for everyone’s benefit, search for breakfast and enjoy it, regularly.

5. Snack Away in the Streets

For true travelers, I do not have to emphasize the thrill and joy of street food. Street food is not a fad, it is certainly not a “hipster” thing. It does not spring up by every John Doe crowing every street corner with a truck or cart. While they may be serving ridiculously good food too, “street food” is a time-cultivated, history-tested tradition. Folks eating on the streets – while selling and bartering whatever they could find to earn very little – is what created street food. This is certainly the case in Korea, where outdoor markets were (and still are for many) the very source of livelihood. People had to eat while working, and voila, street food. In any event, an empty stomach is bad for GERD. So while you are exploring the explorable (by foot, wherever possible), snack and snack often. Control the acid with regular food intake, and really learn the streets and the people that inhabit them. Tough to learn that in front of tablecloth.

6. Tums for Your Tummy

While drugs like Prilosec are better for long term treatment, Tums can save your ass in an emergency. Carry some with you at all times. But a word of caution: do not rely on them. For me, there were days when each meal was a grand slam; hearty kimchi jjigae for breakfast, spicy monk fish casserole for lunch, snacks, snacks, more snacks. Ah, and dinner was something grilled, intestines perhaps with a little skirt steak on charcoal. Having forgotten to take Prilosec the night before, I took some Tums before dinner. No good. It didn’t seem to work as quickly as I thought it would. But that was one particular day with meal after meal after meal. Tums would have worked wonders on any other day, and if I had taken them earlier.

7. Raw is Good, but Not Always

Sashimi is sexy. It just is. Raw fish in any form – also, beef tare-tare in any form – is plentiful throughout the Korean shores and elsewhere in Asia. But, unfortunately, raw things do not seem to be best for GERD people. My most memorable sushi experience to date has been at Sushi Sunsoo in Seoul (which I wrote about in this post). Cruelly, I was fighting off a nasty cold, and my GERD was acting up again, thanks to many fantastic meals preceding Sunsoo. Sashimi, oysters, nigiri sushi, maki, tempura – divine. But that night, I almost crawled into the ER. Raw fish plus cold plus that mysterious medicine the pharmacist gave me (which I stupidly consumed without reading the labels for aspirin) did not please the GERD gods. So if you are in a region prone to magnificent uncooked foods, schedule your meals accordingly.

*          *          *

There it is.

Travel is meaningless without food. The essence of travel is the acquaintance of and interaction with the people that make up the destination, and food happens to be the universal language spoken across all continents. To reach a soul, the stomach is the quickest route.

Don’t let that acid get in your way.

1.

Fewer things are as unpredictable as life. Fewer things are as miraculous, unique and precious. Its beginnings, though often calculated and planned, are nevertheless spontaneous, a result of a rather tenuous competition, or race, ending in a spark that in time changes the lives of others forever. Its endings, though often not calculated or planned, are often dictated by terms within the controls of a system, a system promulgated and regulated by those that were equally “created” by that miraculous spark we call conception. Life begins as a spark – arguably out of one’s control – and yet, oddly, life may end when a third party decides to snub that spark, at a time and in a manner as that third party deems appropriate.

The recently renewed discussion revolving around drone killings shines more light upon life and the right to take it. Lawyers make a living taking sides on arguments, and dubious words and phrases are friends in concocting more dubious explanations justifying the circumstances in which lives may be ended. As any lawyer would know, “legal reasoning” is often another name for “rubber stamp”; it is a sophisticated (maybe not) mean to a desired end, amorphous and easily sculptable. Simply put, it is bullshit – expensive, gift-wrapped bullshit. By no means am I taking sides. There is no easy answer to drone use, and one should stay away from either extreme, as there are always two sides to the equation.

2.

Winter in the Nevada desert is dry. Appropriately so. As the decadent shades of the summer months are dry, so are the winter winds and chills. The cold slaps the outer layers, but fails to penetrate further, bouncing away to some other vulnerable target. Winter on a tiny peninsula, which, by definition, is surrounded on three sides by ocean, penetrates. Frozen air particles drift aimlessly, forming sheets and clouds of ice, and there, the cold wraps around you, clinging to your layers, to your face, to your ears. Humidity is the problem. Sweat and dehydration in the summer, and bone-chilling cold in the winter.

But alas, the enrapturing humid cold is perhaps why Koreans are mad for spicy things and things boiling in hot stews. Russians and their vodkas will also get the job done, but on this particular day, wool scarves wrapped around our faces, we stumbled in for a fire-breathing treat. Space heaters are strategically placed around the tables, but the small dining area is only degrees warmer than the howling winds outside. Taking our order, the lady assures us the heaters will warm up the place in a short bit. A large order of “agujjim” (monk fish casserole) and a order of “gaejang” (raw crab in soy sauce). The friendly lady was right, as coats started coming off and the room, already permeated with the aroma of bean sprouts and fresh fish, started to heat up.

I sat across from a man I have never met before. He looked tired, shoulders slightly stooped, either due to the cold or some weight of life bearing down. And yet his eyes possessed a twinkle, an excitement I only possess when I am awaiting for a plate of food I have been yearning for almost a full year. His twinkle was beyond that.

As recent as forty years ago, the monk fish was thrown away as inedible trash in Korea. Understandably so, given its ugly countenance and rather lackluster amount of fillet. Then fishermen in the Masan area of South Kyungsang province, after hours of battling the waves for the day’s catch, took these beasts to local establishments and asked the cooks to conjure up a creation to enjoy with shots of soju. According to gastronomic legend, for the original Masan-style monk fish casserole, the fish was dried in the wind for twenty to thirty days before cooking, but now that the dish has become a national favorite, simply gutted versions of the fish are used as well. The lightly boiled chunks of fish (fillet, skin and cartilage) are smothered in red pepper flakes, loads of garlic and green onions, alongside bean sprouts, water dropwart and sea squirts.

monkfish

The casserole still steaming, I pour soy sauce over a mound of fresh wasabi. As I have uttered before in this post about monk fish at the restaurant Adour, the true beauty of this creature is not in its fillet, but in its skin and cartilage. Pepper flakes and garlic penetrating the flesh, even the fillet on this cold day is moist and delicate. The wasabi is a surprising match. Chilli spicy and wasabi spicy is different, and the counter play between the two dance on my tongue as I dig into a bowl of steaming white rice. As all of this is unraveling, my eyes are locked on a piece of fish with a generous amount of skin attached. As true gourmets know how to enjoy fish head, if you know monk fish, you know skin and cartilage. The pepper, garlic, wasabi-laden beauties go in the mouth, and chopsticks fly out once more to haul in some of that glistening bean sprout.

Food is a great ice breaker. Even for a table of six and first encounters, a belly full of spicy fish ought to warm the conversation. As our stomachs fill, our small talk about the food, of the weather, and of local politics also blooms, paving the way to something deeper and greater. Not unlike a well-timed shot of vodka, pepper-drenched sprouts and fish simmers a soothing campfire in one’s innards, slowly crawling up and out into one’s mind, illuminating flash-frozen thoughts of past and present. As our bodies thaw, so do our neurons, captivating glimpses of a reminiscent slideshow we call life.

3.

I am against the death penalty.

Arguments for and against this institution are plentiful. The power of the state to decide on the fate of a human life is not to be taken lightly, and there are decades of advocacy on both sides. I am against the death penalty not for those reasons, but because of the man with whom I shared a plate of monk fish casserole. Sweat streaming down the side of my face, and washing down the spiciness with tea, I was in the midst of a meal with the adopted uncle I never had; more accurately, the uncle of stories and yet not reality.

One mistake – one violent, ill-reasoned mistake – landed him on death row for armed robbery and murder. He grew up in an orphanage in Busan; his birth and life before the orphanage is unknown, lost. Maybe it was never lost, because it was never found or realized to begin with. Roaming the streets in Busan with other orphans, my then-delinquent uncle had no reason or purpose to life, listless and restless. Some say the opposite of “love” is not “hate.” Rather, antonym to love is “disinterest.” The potential of disinterest to harbor and nurture hatred is deeper than hate itself. In actuality, this type of hatred may be irrelevant to the common hate, as it is ideally closer to “fear”; a fear of abandonment, a fear for survival, a fear for the cold. The ultimacy of the crime itself – the mens rea, the actus reus – is no doubt the responsibility of the individual. On the contrary, the question revolves around this question: is the act a consequence of the individual himself? Cause is difficult to define, as social justice itself may have no definitive definition to lend support for teenaged orphans convicted of armed robberies. A product of the streets, my teenager uncle, convicted and sentenced to death, arrived at a prison in Daegu, which greeted him with cold bars and a jumpsuit. He was seventeen.

Abandonment hardens the softest of hearts. Prison cells do nothing in reverse, instead pouring superglue over the wounds of hatred and shame. My grandmother, even with years of experience in prison ministry, chiseled away painstakingly slowly to reach out to my uncle. The hardship of reconstructing trust in humankind is no different for death row inmates; the issue of one deserving trust is often so one-sided and disproportionate. Cursed out, neglected, and shut out at first, my grandmother confesses that all he needed was a spoonful of “motherly love” to initiate the thawing process. “Everyone has some good inside them,” she says, “and it is up to us, those of us that appear to be slightly advantaged in the amount of love we’ve received, to caress that good and bring it to the forefront.”

How easy it is to judge upon standards conjured by the select few. How simple it is to draw lines, not in sand but in permanent, black ink. How reasonable it seems to impart indifference to others that fall outside bubbled boundaries. And yet how difficult it is to look over one’s shoulder, to take a second look, to turn around, to walk back, and to reach out one’s hand. How difficult it is.

Fear and emptiness cause hatred. Ironically, the same fear and emptiness causes hatred not only in death row inmates, but also in model citizens under the law. There exists a significant void in our emotional capacity to love. Those closest to us, be it family, lovers and friends, are easiest to love. The socially acceptable, seemingly good folks causing no harm to others, are lovable, but not like our immediate circle. The void has crept in, yet not permanently, for these folks are easily admitted into the circle – a few drinks after work may do. Those that have no connection to us (not even on LinkedIn) are beyond the void. Because “we don’t care.” A simple phrase with devastating impact. Why fill my void with these “others”? Worse, why fill my void with death-deserving convicts. When one does not care, and finds no reason to care, one strikes the gavel, personally condemning others to death. So easy to do so. Because that inmate has no face. And death has no face.

But death has a face.

4.

The most straight forward way to enjoy crab is steaming it with Old Bay seasoning. The best way to enjoy crab, however, is not cooking it at all. Instead, fresh blue crab seeping in a soy sauce mixture for days and weeks creates a succulent delicacy known as “gaejang.” Crab flesh is jelly-like in its raw form, and its natural sweetness is beset preserved this way. Anything that has been seeped in soy sauce is salty, but this kind of salty is counterbalanced with the sweetness of the crab meat and the slight bitter-butteriness of the the crab “brains,” that is, the yellow and green oozy goodness on the shell. The result is melt-in-your-mouth raw crab meat, spoonfuls of gorgeous innards and roe, and a sauce that shall not go to waste, to the last drop.

gaejang

The kind lady prepares a house specialty with the gaejang. Forcefully yet delicately, she squeezes out the crab meat into a gigantic bowl of steamed rice. In a few swift motions, she then tosses in spoonfuls of the crab-indulged soy sauce, handfuls of crushed dried seaweed and dashes of sesame oil. Mix. This “gaejang rice” is beyond human description. The entire experience of inhaling it was as creamy as butter, but there was not an ounce of butter, and it was better than butter. Infinitely. Blasphemous, but true. The soy sauce has absorbed all the flavors of the crab, and in the process, has breathed in the ocean breeze as well. It tastes of the ocean.

Guacamole prepared at the table could be a dining experience, but it is no longer unique and sought after. What makes this rice dish so memorable was how it was made. Slow food (as the crab itself took weeks to complete) as the lady painstakingly removed all the raw crab meat, chatting with us, laughing, adding sesame oil here and there, sprinkling nori. I felt as if I was dining at a home on the shores of Busan.

Death has a face if you choose to give it a face. In spectacular form, food gave me a face for the death penalty; I could no longer speak of it in the abstract, in theorems. Not because he was ultimately executed, but because he was not, because he lived. Hearing his testimony over a meal brought death from the abstract into a name, a face, a wife, a new home, a job – a life. Before him, death row inmates have never been paroled in Korea. While several inmates with life sentences were granted parole, death row inmates evaporated one by one with no hope. But miracles do happen, and after years of transformative interactions and conversations (and probably an intricate pulling of political strings), my uncle was granted amnesty and entered a new world leaving decades of cell-life behind.

It struck me to realize that life illuminates death. One could see how death illuminates life, encouraging one to live to the utmost worthy cause. As a butterfly struggles free from its cocoon, and into a new life of beautiful flights among trees and flowers, a life that should have ended on the end of a noose or in a chair blooms retroactively, the cocoon acting as incubator for something greater and worthier. The narrative I was listening to, from this uncle out of nowhere, would not have been the same from a third-person point of view. If his death sentence had ripened and was carried out as intended, the death would be the only thing illuminated, his life not even worthy of a few lines in a local paper. Yet he lives. And it is his life, the words that came out of his mouth, that struck me as to value the moment of death, that sacred moment when a beautiful life calls it an end.

Whether one believes in creation or evolution, or things in between, life “begins” beyond one’s reach. If your sperm refuses to swim towards the egg, you have no life. We are here because we are here. Capital punishment, for admittedly valid reasons, “ends” life with third-person control. We are here because we are here, but you will no longer be here because we decided against your interest – sums up the issue. Even in death row inmates, the miraculous potential of life still exists. This is one confession you cannot make until death has a face in one’s life. And this face is given not because someone died, but because he lived.

5.

Our plate of monk fish casserole begins to show its bare bottom; I scoop the remaining bits of sprouts and red sauce into my mouth. The gaejang rice, sadly, is long gone, and I reach over and grab a final crab leg hanging out in a pool of that magic soy sauce. Another bowl of rice would have been great (as a vehicle for this amazing crab-infused soy sauce) but what measure of reason left in me politely declined. Such useless politeness, if you ask me now.

The death penalty arbitrarily takes away “potential.” Within parameters constructed by imperfect human beings, we define “worth.” We then measure a life against those parameters and deconstruct it, asking whether the crime in question is “deserving” of death, and whether the person in question is “worthy” of life. My uncle and I shared one of the most memorable meals of my life, both in terms of gastronomic substance and conversation. The culmination of my grandmother’s stories, her news clippings and my imagination was a warm, laughter-filled meal, with an uncle that may have never been. Capital punishment takes away that potential; a full life with a paying job, a new wife and just-blooming memories all cut short and denied with a few poundings of the gavel and some bullshit order by a judge.

How funny it is that one speaks of death over food.

But how fitting it is to realize that food, the very fuel that sustains life, is the perfect medium to reminisce upon the most basic rights to humankind – the right to life.

By definition, winter signifies a shriveling of life. Retraction takes a grip on trees and shrubs, and even people, as we pull our hands up in our sleeves, pull our coat collars tight against our exposed necks, and bundle up in layers of cotton, goose down and fur. By definition, winter signifies death, the polar opposite of life, of creation. Evidence of life – greenery, warm rain, gently caressing wind – is absent, nowhere to be found. All of life temporarily submits to the cold, awaiting the dissipating frost, awaiting that first sign of sprouts and roots. Yet until then, hibernation blankets the fields, patience seemingly dwindling from the foreground of bustling production.

How ironic, then, that the very symbolization of winter – death – so often creates highly prized delicacies in localities scattered about. From death itself blooms a creation that would not have seen light in the warmth of spring; death nurtures a will to thrive, a will that sparks ingenuity.

It is no surprise that humankind’s wisdom blossomed greatly around food and the preservation of it. After all, no matter what the circumstances. one must eat. For survival or for pleasure, exponential wisdom and know-how has been dedicated to ensure the steady intake of food. Such wisdom was ever more vital during the per-cannery era. Today, at any given Safeway or Whole Foods, there exists entire aisles dedicated to canned foods; anything and everything can be canned and stored for, well, until the apocalypse. If I may digress, my high school building was built as a bomb shelter in the fifties, and according to school legend, there were a complete system of tunnels underneath school grounds, all the way out to the baseball field. And along these tunnel routes rested thousands of canned rations. Russian missiles never did come, and our yearbook staff’s efforts to uncover the myth never led to any solid evidence. Nevertheless, the science of canning food for preservation is a relatively new phenomenon in gastronomic history.

Preservation of fish has played an integral part in human development. From various parts of the world, where civilizations sprouted and blossomed near rivers, bays and other bodies of water, preserved fish was a critical protein source throughout the year, especially during the cold non-growing months. With no refrigeration technology available, fish was preserved using other sources of wit and wisdom – salting, pickling, smoking and drying. Fermentation was extensively used even in hot and humid climates. In Southeast Asia, fermented fish paste, in its many forms and varieties, are used daily as in important flavoring ingredient in countless local dishes (Cambodia’s “prahok” is something I have wanted to try for years). In Japan, the ancient ancestral sushi, known as “nare-zushi”, was pickled by stacking fish with layers of rice, the season-long fermentation process, often lasting months, breaking down the rice and fish to create its distinct taste and funk. Herring has been pickled as a delicacy in the Baltic and Nordic regions, and Alaskan salmon is just one type of fish that has a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde type personality change upon smoking.

Perhaps the practice of drying fish leaves the least amount of control in one’s hands. No amount of salt, rice or any other pickling agent is used for preservation; in most other methods, variables of similar likeness are under full command of one’s hands. As some may say, “control is power.” Put in another way, the relinquishment of control is a direct loss of power. But the process of drying asks of such relinquishment; all one can do is clean the fish, perform blade work on it as deemed fit, and hang it. The rest is left to nature. Conditions of temperature, humidity and air velocity is beyond one’s reach, and one may dare say that Mother Nature takes over from then on, preserving the day’s catch at her pace in a manner she chooses.

In direct contrast to the central element of its definition, winter bears and births one local delicacy in particular that may only be found in the southeast coast of the Korean peninsula. Affectionately called “gwamegee” by the locals, this air-dried mackerel pike is the offspring of the unique environmental and historical roots of the city of Pohang and the North Kyungsang province.

Although the exact ancestral beginnings of gwamegee is debatable – most say it started around the early nineteenth century – the preservation process and its unique texture and taste have been passed down through generations. Originally, gwamegee was made with herring, as the fish was caught in great abundance in the seas of Pohang and even upstream in some of its rivers. As the supply of herring diminished, mackerel or saury took its place. After being gutted and cleaned, the fish is hung in the sea breeze of Pohang for up to two weeks. The flesh, not fully dry, still retains the essential oils of the fish, compacting its flavor. As it was hundreds of years ago, it is best enjoyed with an array of seaweed and cabbages, often with chives, raw garlic, and spicy vinegared pepper paste. This delicacy was so sought after that, in the Chosun Dynasty, kings ordered the artisans to ship cartloads of it to Seoul before the product could be sold in the general market.

I once again was reunited with this dish in the most unassuming restaurants in Shinsa-dong, part of the now infamous “Gangnam” district of Seoul – miles and miles away from Pohang. There were no waves to listen to, no ocean breeze to walk against. No seagull in sight, not a fish line in before us. Just Gangnam, in all its deceiving glory. As if reenacting the history of supplying the royalty, the gwamegee was personally delivered from Pohang, just days after it was plucked from the drying lines. No kings of Chosun were present at our table, but with each bite, one drew closer to understanding why the well-fed monarchs anxiously awaited their chariots to arrive from the poverty-stricken coast land.

Winter creates. Its harshness is often misunderstood, temperature acting as a deceptively cunning shadow of its true nature. Its slashing winds dig through outer layers, almost seemingly through our bones, but in our modern, everyday concrete jungle, the shrill of the wind is magnified through our man-made wind tunnels. Out in the outskirts of Pohang – and any other quiet sea-side townships – the ocean breeze, even its winter variety, gently caresses the hanging fish, rocking it back and forth ever so slightly. Harshness and shrillness are no longer accurate descriptors. Like a newborn in a crib, like budding leaves and flowers in the early days of spring, the wind here is a nursing mother, cooing her young to the most intimate lullaby.

Winter creates. By no means is the temperature cuddly during Pohang’s winter months. But in creation’s perspective, even the cruel thermometer has its place. During the two-week drying process, the freezing temperatures of the night enraptures the fish and freezes it. Throughout the night, as the full moon watches on, the hanging fish is a cocoon in deep sleep, swaying back and forth at times, and holding still as a rock when the wind retracts itself to the depths of the dark. It awaits. When the morning sun bursts open over the East Sea, the gradual warmth of day re-heats and melts the flesh. As a butterfly breaks into the world, so does the fish stretch from the cold of night into a day’s worth of sun. As this process of freezing and re-heating repeats itself for fifteen days, the natural oils of the fish are harnessed, compacting its flavor and nurturing a wonderfully chewy texture.

Winter creates. The blistering heat of the summer sun would have overwhelmed the tender mackerel, devouring its nutrients and succulent juices. The winter sun warms the flesh just enough to semi-dry it; only the winter variety of sunshine is sensitive enough to preserve the fish’s distinct qualities. In conjunction with the sea breeze and frost, rays of light stroke the fish gently, gliding over every morsel, every molecule with equal due care. The degree of alarm associated with the microwave oven jolts whatever specimen occupies its chambers; on the contrary, the winter sun is in the midst of a delicate ballet with the rows of hanging fish, allowing patience and time to bloom in their roles as facilitators.

Alain de Botton, in his book “Status Anxiety,” quotes the English poet and critic Matthew Arnold, in defining and defending art – and thus creation: “Every great work of art . . .  was marked . . . by the ‘desire to remove human error, clear human confusion, and diminish human misery,’ just as all great artists were imbued with the ‘aspiration to leave the world better and happier than they [found] it.’ They might not always realise this ambition through overtly political subject matter . . . and yet embedded within their work, there was almost always some cry of protest against the status quo, and thus an impulse to correct the viewer’s insight or teach him to perceive beauty, to help him understand pain or to reanimate his sensitivities, to nurture his capacity for empathy or rebalance his moral perspective through sadness or laughter. Arnold concluded his argument with the idea upon which this chapter is build: Art, h insisted, was ‘the criticism of life.'” Through plagues, famines, and wars, art symbolized creative vitality. When pressed, humanity responds in full bloom, preserving every percolating ounce of richness.

The worst circumstances draw out the best in humanity. When the fields are barren, stripped of its life-giving capacity, frozen solid three layers deep to the core, winter creates wisdom. The need to survive creates the urge to thrive. The slashing winds are different. The night frost is different. Rays of sunlight are different. Previously perceived as villains of angry blizzards and wind tunnels, nature’s ingredients are themselves transformed into creators. Destruction no longer subdues the fields; although still frozen, humanity thrives in the most frigid of temperatures, the darkest of hours.

All this is illuminated by winter, which by definition creates nothing but death.

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